The concept of flow is a very interesting phenomenon in sport and also in art. This curiosity was seen in artists who seemed to lose time while engaged in their art and was first studied by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. in the 1970s. If you could watch an athlete like Erling Haaland, you would see a person in flow. During his warm up, you would notice that his warmup and game style are much the same. This style of performance is often called in the zone or flow state..
I as extremely fortunate to have very close seats to pitch-side on Tuesday (14-3-23) at the Etiad stadium to watch Leipzig vs Manchester City. I was in G section which is about 50m away from the corner spot. This was a UEFA knockout stage match, so a critical game to win. Winning would move the team to top eight and into contention to win overall. It is a hugely lucrative event.
One of the most interesting parts of attending a live game, to me, is seeing the players’ preparation and warm up prior to the game. These superstars are like movie stars and seeing them live is almost surreal. I have a underlying belief that watching the warmup might reveal something upcoming in the game.
As a simple swim-coach observer, I claim no expertise in football. In fact our busdriver and the high school teachers from Wallace High School in Stirling whom I travelled with on a school trip could talk for hours on football … and did. It is a semi-religious, inexhaustible, fountain of knowledge. I am not an ant on their shoe when it comes to understanding this football religion.
But sport of any type is interesting to me and I try to see if there’s something to learn. I don’t really care who wins.
Haaland was sublime in his warm up and so were his team mates. In particular I watched #47 and was dumbstruck as he nimbly took a 50 ft pass off his outside foot, he cleverly popped the ball onto the other outside foot, pirouetted, then softly popped it into the air a couple more times, then sliced it high into the air to have it land perfectly onto his teammate’s foot, 50 ft away. (#47 is Philip Foden).
I quickly realised I was watching pure expertise, the cream-of-the-crop artists of players who had years of skill beyond their age. A group of circus-like talent, probably the finest in the world, exceptionally well paid and sandwiched together on two teams.
The game started as expected, a close match, but a VAR penalty tipped the balance about 20 minutes into the game. Haaland scored the penalty but then he seemed to sense a deflating opposition . The party was only starting and he seemed to be everywhere at the right time.
Haaland noticed, as expected, a heaviness in his opponents demeanour after the penalty and attacked! He sprinted towards the opponents goalkeeper causing a mistake and soon scored again. Running from behind players, around players, like a Secondary school teen in a Primary school’s game. He scored seconds after the penalty goal. He scored again, and again and again. Five goals. No question in my mind he could have scored another four if he’d not been taken off with 30min still left in the game. He scored five goals in less than half of the game.
How did he do it?
Haaland’s style was fascinating. He accelerated fast as he ran, he dipped, pushed and played hard. But he looked at ease. He seemed to do it by playing the game like it was still part of his warmup! It was like he was having fun laughing with his mates in five-a-side
Haaland played differently than his team, they tightened up a bit for ‘the game’ and he did not. To him ‘the game’ seemed fun; simply a game. But his teammates were still incredible and found him at every chance. They knew that he was on fire. With the innate knowledge of an expert, like a Wayne Gretzky, and the keeness of a child, like an early Tiger Woods, he played for fun and anticipated openings. Like #47 did in his warm up.
For me this was a lesson in flow. After the game, in his interview he said, “If I think too much I don’t think it’s a good thing”. Csikszentmihalyi found that flow is playful and carefree but often is followed by an unclear memory of the event. In another interview on the night Haaland said; “i should be honest now, I’m a bit blurry in my head, I just remember shooting and not thinking.”
Creating a flow state for swimmers and any sport requires a coaches understanding of what it looks like. Watching Haaland has given me a new idea of how to make that happen.